Kim Jong Chul, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s elusive older brother, is a talented musician and major Eric Clapton fan who has the respect of his powerful younger brother — but he is disinterested in politics and is unlikely to emerge as a successor or major presence in the regime.
As reports swirl over Kim Jong Un being in a coma — or dead — attention has turned to the despot’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong, who already plays an active role in the Workers’ Party, and Kim Jong Chul, his only surviving brother.
But despite Kim Jong Chul being the older brother — he is believed to be around 39-years-old — he has never been seen as a viable option to lead the country.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Kim Jong Il’s eldest son Kim Jong Nam — Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Chul’s half-brother — was initially primed to be the next leader but he vanished from the public eye after he was caught trying to enter Tokyo with a fake passport so he could visit Disneyland, embarrassing his powerful father.
In 2017, he was assassinated with a VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia, five years after Kim Jong Un had already succeeded to power — and experts say the basketball lover was always the second choice and Kim Jong Chul was never seriously considered.
Dr. Leonid Petrov, considered to be one of the globe’s leading experts on North Korea, told News.com.au in 2017 that Kim Jong Chul is “apolitical” and more interested in pop music and concerts than leading a communist nation.
The expert also pointed to issues North Korea’s former leader and Kim Jong Chul’s father, Kim Jong Il, had with his second-eldest son’s apparent femininity — reportedly saying he has a “soft personality,” the outlet reported.
“There are rumours [Jong Chul] has feminine traits to his character and took hormones to help him behave more masculine,” Petrov said.
Kenji Fujimoto, Kim Jong Ils’s former personal sushi chef who went by a pseudonym, echoed those feelings in his 2003 memoir.
“Jong-Chul, had the warm heart of a girl,” Fujimoto wrote, according to the Washington Post, while Kim Jong Un “was a boy of inner strength.”
Signs of Kim Jong Chul’s softer side arose when he was just a teenager studying at the International School in Berne, Switzerland, according to Hyung Gu Lynn, an expert on the elusive nation.
In his book “Bipolar Orders: The Two Koreas Since 1989,” Lynn included a poem Kim Jong Chul scribed when he was 15 that called for a utopia without bombs and weapons and described a penchant for Hollywood movies.
“If I had my ideal world I would not allow weapons and atom bombs anymore. I would destroy all terrorists with the Hollywood star Jean-Claude van Damme. I would make people stop taking drugs. I would even destroy the word ‘DRUG’ to make people forget about it. I would make everybody get good jobs,” the young Kim Jong Chul wrote under the pseudonym Chol Pak.
“Everybody would be happy: no more war, no more dying, no more crying. Then I would make a rule (Do not believe in God.) God doesn’t help and there is no God. I would make people believe in themselves, and they would work hard for their happiness and success waiting in their future.
“I would make the whole world use only one language, which would be Korean, and I would make all people have the same amount of money: no rich people, no poor people. Only in my ideal world can the people have freedom and live very happily.”
In his adult life, Kim Jong Chul is most known for his love for Eric Clapton. In 2011, a South Korean intelligence official said he was seen at a Clapton concert in Singapore and in 2006, he apparently followed the artist’s tour across Germany, catching shows in four different cities, according to the Washington Post.
When he was spotted in London in 2015, he looked more like a K-Pop star than a despot’s brother, sporting a black leather jacket, sunglasses and a scowl. And when he was seen in Singapore, he reportedly had pierced ears, the outlet reported.
In 2017, Thae Yong Ho, the former deputy ambassador of North Korea to London, spoke to Reuters about Kim Jong Chul’s trip to London where Thae served as a minder before defecting to South Korea in 2016.
Kim Jong UnAFP via Getty Images
“He’s very free,” Thae told the outlet. “But he’s only interested in guitars and music”.
Thae said Kim Jong Chul is a skilled guitarist and spent 30 minutes jamming out at a guitar shop on Denmark Street in London’s flashy West End before driving 60 miles to buy a “Made in US” guitar he’d been searching for.
“The shopkeepers of those guitar shops were amazed by his talent,” Thae recalled.
They asked him who he was and which band he was in but Kim Jong Chul “just smiled,” Thae said.
“He didn’t say anything.”
But despite his lack of interest in politics, Kim Jong Chul is believed to have a good relationship with his younger brother. Before Kim Jong Un decided to meet with US President Donald Trump for their historic summit, he reportedly consulted with his elder brother, according to South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper.
“The fact that Kim Jong Un holds discussions with him can be interpreted as him showing respect for his elder brother,” sources told the outlet, according to English-language Japanese newspaper Nekkei Asian Review.
Analysts who closely watch North Korea also told Al Jazeera that Kim Jong Chul does maintain ties with his more political siblings.
Instead, experts told the BBC this month Kim Jong Chul is more likely to just be a “symbolic link” to the famous family and could end up leading a foundation or propped up to give a speech every so often.